So here’s Berwick, one win away from its first appearance in the PIAA Class 3A championship game since 1997.
Even the guy who led the Dawgs there the last time is impressed.
“To be 14-0, I take my hat off to these kids,” said Berwick coach George Curry, whose Dawgs won the last of a record six Class 3A titles that year. “I tell them how proud I am of them. They find a way to do it. They never quit. They play hard. They are out-manned, they are out-sized, out-experienced. Yet they win the games. Somebody steps it up.”
And they’ll need to do it again starting at 7 p.m. today at J. Birney Crum Stadium in Allentown against District 12 champion Archbishop Wood, which brings in a hefty resume itself.
Wood (11-2) is part of the Philadelphia Catholic League, which didn’t join the PIAA until 2008. The Vikings have played in the 3A state semifinals every year since then. They won the 3A state title in 2011 with a 52-0 shellacking of Bishop McDevitt, the largest margin of victory in a title game in the 25 years of state playoffs.
Wood also lost in the 3A state title contest 34-7 to Thomas Jefferson in 2008, and 24-14 to Erie Cathedral Prep last year.
Ah, that loss to Cathedral Prep. It was a bitter way to end 2012. It was also a catalyst to rally the troops heading into this season.
“The ultimiate goal when you start the year is to play for a state championship,” Wood coach Steve Devlin said. “We’ve been lucky enough to win along the way and stay healthy.”
Wood’s only losses were 31-21 to St. Joseph’s Prep, which is playing in the 4A semifinals Saturday afternoon, and 22-7 to Archbishop Ryan. Since the loss to Ryan, the Vikings have won five in a row and have allowed more than 14 points just once.
Wood’s forte is running the ball from various formations — Wing-T, I-formation, pro set, spread, you name it.
Running back Jarrett McClenton isn’t very big at 5-foot-8, 160 pounds, but he’s lightning quick. He has six 100-yard games this season, including 145 yards on just 12 carries in last Friday’s 42-14 quarterfinal win over Academy Park. Running back Josh Messina also brings some zip to the backfield. For fans who attended Berwick’s 44-7 quarterfinal victory over Clearfield, Messina’s running style is very similar to Clearfield running back Tyler Stratton. It’s quickness blended with power.
“Our defense the last couple of games, we’ve given up a lot of yardage,” Curry said. “We really have rookies in there. We’re really young. I mean, we’re making plays, don’t get me wrong. But that score — 44-7 — I saw the film and they knocked us off the ball.”
Berwick surrendered 104.3 rushing yards per game during the regular season, tied for the second lowest in the Wyoming Valley Conference. No opposing runner was able to reach 100 yards. That’s changed in the postseason.
In Berwick’s 14-13 District 2 semifinal win, Crestwood’s Frank Aigeldinger rushed for 176 yards on 25 carries. Abington Heights found little success running the ball in the D2-3A title game, but the following week Bethlehem Catholic’s Michael McDaniel had 119 yards on 12 rushes in the Dawgs’ 29-27 state first-round victory. Aigeldinger and McDaniel each broke off long TD runs.
Stratton had 91 yards on 17 rushes for Clearfield last weekend versus the Dawgs. Clearfield quarterback Christian Lezzer, one of the top running signal-callers in the state, had 53 at halftime before an apparent upper left leg injury hampered him in the final two quarters.
The ability to diagnose Wood’s running plays, Curry said, will be more critical in the trenches than brute strength.
“We can’t sit there and play a gap-control defense. They’ll just blow you out of there,” Curry said. “Clearfield did it. They knocked us off the ball. But we made plays. We always came up with a turnover or they hurt themselves with a penalty. (Wood) is going to have good schemes. We’re going to have to work hard on their schemes.”
Those schemes include the possibility of the pass. Wood runs the ball about 75 percent of the time, but quarterback Tom Garlick has proven to be a solid thrower when needed. Curry said his defense needs to be cognizant of Garlick’s play-action passes to the running backs.
“We can do both,” Devlin said. “We try to be balanced. We take what they give us.”
Sounds like Berwick. The Dawgs ran fullback Jorden Stout continuously against Abington Heights and Bethlehem Catholic. When Clearfield made an obvious effort to plug the inside, quarterback C.J. Curry and running back Dain Kowalski exploited the perimeters for 274 yards. C.J. Curry has an excellent grasp of the offense, according to his coach/grandfather. That helps bail out the Dawgs on occasion.
“It helps when you have a quarterback who knows the system,” Curry said. “We practice packages, and he calls what he sees. He comes up to the line, looks at the numbers, looks at the spot where he wants to run that play, he audibles. If he’s stuck, he’ll look over at me. But he’s pretty sharp. He does a good job with those audibles.”
So now, the season comes down to 48 minutes to decide which team plays at Hersheypark Stadium the following Friday. Berwick enters the game a slight underdog based on recent history, but the Dawgs have found ways to win.
“You never know,” Curry said. “Our kids are not intimidated by anybody. Sometimes you’re better not knowing anything about your opponent. I tell them, ‘Look, they’re high school kids.’
“We’ll give them a game. We’ll play hard. Can we win it? Yes, we can win it or we wouldn’t practice. If you don’t feel that way, then hand your uniform in and let’s pack it up. Our kids are excited.”